Congress And Biden Are Playing With Fire In The Debt Ceiling Standoff

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Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Could an economic cataclysm be just a few weeks away? Experts are warning that could indeed happen if the U.S. doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, the statutory limit on how much money the federal government can borrow in order to pay its financial obligations. (Raising the debt ceiling doesn’t authorize new spending — it just allows the nation to pay its bills on stuff it’s already bought.)

As they did in 2011 and 2013, congressional Republicans who think the federal government spends too much money are refusing to raise the debt ceiling without significant spending cuts, setting up a showdown with President Biden. Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that the ceiling could be reached as soon as June 1. (The exact date remains unknown, but the Bipartisan Policy Center has estimated it will be between early June and early August.)

The situation is precarious not only for the U.S. economy, but for both political parties. It’s not a great look to be seen as playing a game of chicken with the national economy! So for this week’s politics chat, we’re going to discuss which party could have the most to lose politically from a debt ceiling standoff — or, in the worst-case scenario, an economic crisis. First, though, what’s the latest on the negotiations?

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior reporter): Right now, we still seem pretty far from a deal. On Tuesday, Biden met with congressional leaders, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, to talk about a potential resolution, and when they emerged, they said they hadn’t made any headway (though the two sides will meet again on Friday). Biden said going into the meeting that he won’t propose a short-term increase that would avert an economic meltdown while the negotiations continue, while Republicans are continuing to use the potential for default as leverage to demand spending cuts. Biden has made it clear he does not want spending cuts. So … it’s hard to see at this point how the two sides are going to come together.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): It does seem like there are many miles to travel to get a deal. Biden has said he wants a “clean” debt ceiling hike — that is, one without spending strings attached — while House Republicans narrowly passed legislation in late April that would raise the debt ceiling but also freeze public spending and repeal key parts of Biden’s agenda — which, of course, the administration will be loath to accept.

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): Yes, as Nathaniel said, Republicans have been trying to use the debt ceiling to force spending cuts during the last two Democratic administrations. The debt ceiling debate is one that can have real consequences: If we hit it, the government could grind to a halt and start defaulting on its debts.

nrakich: Yeah, although nothing focuses the mind like a deadline. (I myself waited until an hour before this chat to prepare for it!) I’m not surprised that we’re nowhere near a deal three weeks (at least) before D(efault)-Day. If by May 31, the two sides are still super far apart, I’ll be more worried.

ameliatd: That three-week cushion may be a bit deceiving, Nathaniel. There actually aren’t a lot of days between now and June 1 when both houses of Congress are in session and Biden’s in Washington.

nrakich: Ooh, good flag.

OK, so at the very least, Congress and Biden are risking an economic disaster with their hardline negotiation stances. Even if they reach a deal before the deadline, the American public likely won’t appreciate that their leaders brought the economy so close to the brink. Who do you guys think would take the brunt of the blame in that scenario? 

Monica Potts: In recent fiscal showdowns comparable to this one, Americans have tended to blame Republicans in Congress more than the Democratic president. People worry about the consequences of a default. According to a recent YouGov/CBS News poll, 70 percent of Americans supported raising the debt ceiling to avoid one. 

Also, it’ll depend on the concessions that each side makes. When voters hear about “debt,” they tend to think that the U.S. government spends too much money, but when you drill down on specific programs, there aren’t many they’re willing to cut.

ameliatd: Yeah, I think a lot depends on what’s actually in the deal. Big spending cuts tied to a debt ceiling increase could be unpopular: A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 58 percent of Americans wanted the debt ceiling and federal spending to be handled as separate issues. Just 26 percent said that Congress should only raise the debt ceiling if Biden agrees to cuts. So there’s actually quite a bit of risk for Biden here if he agrees to cut popular programs.

nrakich: In 2011, when then-President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to a deal that included deep spending cuts, Americans’ opinions of Congress and the Republican Party decreased — but so did Obama’s approval rating

ameliatd: Biden has another incentive to fight back: What Republicans are asking for is very much at odds with his legislative agenda. The plan unveiled by House Republicans in April included expanding work requirements for federal-aid programs, blocking Biden’s proposed student loan forgiveness program, and repealing some clean-energy provisions from last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, including rebates for high-efficiency home electric devices. 

But of course, the risk of default is also pretty bad!

geoffrey.skelley: Something important to keep in mind here are the dynamics of the narrow GOP majority in the House. When I spoke to experts about the debt ceiling fight back in February, there were two ways to look at this. On the one hand, the GOP could be reluctant to go to war over the debt ceiling because it lacks an electoral mandate, especially following what was widely viewed as an underperformance in the 2022 midterms. On the other hand, Biden was always unlikely to go along with a plan that had broad Republican support (like the bill the House passed), and every Democratic vote gained as part of a possible deal could mean many lost GOP votes. And on top of his narrow majority, McCarthy had a difficult fight to become speaker, so his control over his caucus is limited, which could complicate how many conservative priorities he can abandon in negotiations with Biden.

nrakich: (As a side note: I do wonder whether McCarthy’s speakership will survive this fight.) 

ameliatd: Right, this is a tricky position for everyone — which is why some wild possible solutions are being thrown out there. That includes a bipartisan discharge petition — a procedural move that would allow rank-and-file House members to force a bill to the floor, bypassing Republican leadership — and an attempt by Democrats to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally.

And don’t forget the trillion-dollar coin, the internet’s favorite solution that will never happen.

geoffrey.skelley: When it comes to procedural ideas like the discharge petition, however, experts think that’ll never work in time. A House member may file a discharge petition when a bill has been stuck in committee for at least 30 legislative days. But to successfully force the bill to the floor, a majority of all House members must sign on. This rarely happens, though: Since the 1930s, fewer than 4 percent of the discharge petitions filed in the House have gotten enough support to get out of committee. And even if it could work, Congress does not have that kind of time! A legislative day is a day the chamber is in session, not just 30 straight calendar days. Moreover, there are other mandated waiting periods in the discharge process that would make it too time-consuming to be a realistic solution. 

nrakich: What about just declaring the debt ceiling unconstitutional? Biden raised that possibility after the talks on Tuesday.

Monica Potts: The notion that the president can just ignore the debt ceiling was floated during the Obama administration. The idea is that since the 14th Amendment says public debt cannot “be questioned,” the president has the authority to just continue paying debts. This would be legally uncharted territory, to say the least. 

ameliatd: Yeah, I can take a wild guess at what the (very conservative) Supreme Court would think of Biden raising the debt ceiling on his own …

Monica Potts: Exactly.

nrakich: OK, then let’s consider the unthinkable: The U.S. defaults on its debt. What would happen to the economy in that scenario?

ameliatd: This is where we cue up the scary music, because it could be very bad! The White House Council of Economic Advisers released a projection last week that if the government defaults for even a week, 500,000 Americans would lose their jobs. A longer crisis — think three months or longer — could, according to this projection, tip the country into a full-on recession in which millions of people lose their jobs and the stock market tanks.

And economists already think the economy is pretty fragile. The job market is robust and the unemployment rate is low, but the Federal Reserve has been hiking interest rates for over a year in an effort to slow inflation. It would get even more expensive to borrow if the country defaults.

Monica Potts: The nation has never defaulted on its debt, so it would be an unprecedented situation. But in 2011, just getting close to reaching the debt ceiling caused Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the U.S.’s credit rating. And as Amelia said, economists are already predicting economic turmoil. And the economy has been a bit weird since the COVID-19 pandemic began: The average American is already struggling with inflation, and this could add to economic burdens.

nrakich: Could the resulting economic crisis impact the 2024 election? Which party do you think would have more to lose in the event of a debt-ceiling-caused recession?

geoffrey.skelley: Historically, we definitely associate economic troubles with bad electoral performances for the president’s party. (As the man said: “It’s the economy, stupid.”) Some examples:

I could list many other instances, too. However, a debt default could be a different beast: In that situation, it would not be hard for Democrats to argue that Republicans could have voted to raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached to avoid a default. So I’m less certain that Biden would receive the majority of the blame.

Monica Potts: While I think Americans might initially blame congressional Republicans, a long, drawn-out economic disaster would probably impact Biden more. According to a Gallup poll from April, most Americans (64 percent) had almost no or only a little confidence in Biden recommending the right thing for the economy. A downturn precipitated by the failure to come up with a deal would feed into the idea that Biden isn’t good on the economy.

nrakich: I think that makes sense, Monica. Americans might blame Republicans for causing the economic crisis this summer. But if it’s not cleaned up by fall 2024, they might look at Biden and say, “What gives? Why haven’t you fixed this?”

geoffrey.skelley: I guess after the 2022 midterms and the less-intense-than-expected effect of inflation on voting choices, I’m skeptical frustrated voters would absolve the GOP for its role in a default and vote for the party’s presidential candidate. Granted, that could be different in the event of a long-lasting economic catastrophe.

ameliatd: It does put Biden in a very tough position. As Nathaniel and Monica said, the economic fallout from a prolonged default could extend into next year, and that would cast a pall over Biden’s reelection campaign. But it’s also going to be bad for his campaign if he agrees to a deal that undoes many of his signature accomplishments.

nrakich: Of course, there’s also just the possibility that Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents will blame Republicans, and Republicans and Republican-leaning independents will blame Biden, and the electoral impact could be a wash. According to the ABC News/Washington Post poll that Amelia cited earlier, 39 percent of Americans said they would blame congressional Republicans in the event of a default, 36 percent said they would blame Biden and 16 percent said they would blame both equally.

Monica Potts: I agree, Nathaniel. It’s pretty clear Americans in general view the economy through a partisan lens, perhaps more so than ever thanks to increasing polarization. It’s worth remembering that most Republicans in Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling in bipartisan votes three times under President Donald Trump without spending concessions, despite growing debt during his tenure. This is really a partisan fight, and a fight over priorities. The debt ceiling is just the immediate cause.



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